Business comes in with the surf

Ryan Graff, Paddlesports Business

Ask Reno business owners and tourism officials about the Reno River Festival and they’ll eventually mention girls in bikinis. The restaurateurs and city leaders aren’t necessarily excited about the girls themselves, but they are excited about what girls in bikinis invariably attract—a crowd.

During last May’s festival the girls brought 32,000 of their friends to downtown Reno to hang out for four days. During that time they bled two area ATMs dry —withdrawing a collective $60,000 on day one, and $180,000 over four days. And they pumped somewhere between $3.8 and $5 million into the Reno economy, says Knud Svendsen, vice president of sales and marketing for the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. (Tourism officials haven’t crunched the 2007 festival spending numbers yet, but know that festival-goers spent $3.8 million in 2006, when 11,000 fewer people showed up.)

And this was over just four spring days during the Festival. Over the course of the three-month season in Reno the park attracts 70-80,000 people to downtown. Not bad for a park that’s only existed since 2004.

To hear local boaters tell it — understandably proud of the whitewater park they conceived and worked 11 years to implement — Reno can thank the Truckee River Whitewater Park not only for all the extra cash, but also for a tremendous revitalization in downtown Reno. Before the park was built, concrete walls sluiced the Truckee River through downtown Reno until it reached Wingfield Island Park, at which point the river split and spilled over two concrete dams. Businesses along the Truckee literally turned their back on the river — using the riverfront as their back alley. The only people who paid the river any mind were a few local paddlers and Reno’s homeless. And occasionally the police, who chased paddlers off the river from the ’70s up to the early ’90s, local boaters say.

But no more.

Today as many as 40 bars and restaurants—with fancy names like Imperial, Devine, and Washo—line the downtown streets of Reno. A 25-story condo building stands above the river, and a proposed project would build a residential tower 42 stories high. None of which was there five years ago before the park was built, says Svendsen.

“The park has become the heart of our downtown,” Svendsen says. “It’s the center artery of what’s gong on. Reno used to be this dusty old gaming town, now it’s America’s adventure town.”

Svendsen, whose job is to grow room nights and occupancy rates in Reno’s hotels, likes that 25 percent of the festival’s attendees come from out of town. Mark Lewis, Reno’s redevelopment administrator, loves that the whitewater park “really helped bring greater-Reno residents back into the downtown.”

Local or visitor, they all bring money, and they all seem to congregate at the park.

Though paddlers to want to give the park all the credit, the Reno park’s creation coincided with a couple other critical factors. One was the human migration from Southern California and the San Francisco area to Reno. Another was a host of new companies and workers in town — including Barnes and Noble and Microsoft — brought by either the 300 plus days of sunshine each year, the close proximity to Lake Tahoe, or a new focus in the city and quality of life.

Still, $3.8 million in four days reaped from an initial investment of 1.5 million.

Retail/Industry benefit

While Reno has reaped undeniable benefits, and officials are more than happy with the money its new breed of tourists has spent, the sport of kayaking—and in turn local outdoor shops—seem to garner even greater rewards.

The number of kayakers in Reno has at least tripled since the park opened, says Charles Albright, long-time Reno paddler and president of the Sierra Nevada whitewater club. “We went from having no kayak schools to having five in one year,” he says. Parks in general are great for the sport, says industry luminary Risa Shimoda, if for no other reason than the visibility they give kayaking, which spent decades hidden from the general public in the backcountry. Parks in urban areas allow more exposure and may plant a seed for future paddlers. More importantly, perhaps, park visibility may plant a seed for a future paddler’s mother, says Shimoda.

Many parents see kayaking as an “extreme and probably dangerous” sport for their children, she says. Having a kayak park in an urban location parents drive by everyday and see that most kayakers come back day after day—alive and well—likely gives some assurance to parents concerned about the sport’s safety. And it makes them more likely to encourage their kids’ participation, which means growth for the paddling industry.

But the real boon for paddlesports retailers may not come from $1,000 boat sales or even boats at all.

“It’s not just about kayaking,” says Jim Bell, owner of Sierra Adventures, an outdoor shop located right next to the Reno play park. “We rent more tubes than anything else in the summer.” In fact, he says surfing is a lot easier without the kayak. Most park goers take the relatively easy road to surfdom with a tube or boogie board. Reno’s entrepreneurs recognized the trend early and set up tube rental businesses along the river. So many wanted a piece of the pie that the city limited the number of permits it would grant to two, says Albright.

What type of park?

Despite many communities’ goal of building a “world-class” feature, a park need not be great to attract paddlers—or money-spending spectators. The way to make a person fall in love with the sport is not to push them onto a shiny green wave with a four-foot pile of whitewater churning behind them. It’s much better, says Shimoda, to build a Class II section, which is exciting but friendly for learning.

Look, she says, at Golden Colorado.

Golden first opened its park in 1998, with a quarter mile of features on Clear Creek that runs through town. They added another quarter mile a few years ago and not a single feature—out of 11 drops—is world class. Still, the change that Golden undergoes during whitewater season is “astounding,” says public works director Dan Hartman. Each summer afternoon the park is filled with boaters, and when the water warms in July and August the park fills with tubers and swimmers. In a 1998 study commissioned by the city, an economics firm found that the park had an economic impact of $1-2 million annually. Now, says Hartman, the park’s traffic is probably double what it was in 1998, as is the park’s economic benefit.

“The economic benefit is clearly greater than we ever would have anticipated,” he says.

Which is exactly Shimoda’s point. “Golden has no world class features. But is it a wild success?” she asks. “Yes it is!”

Boaters around Colorado bemoan Golden’s lack of even one better-than-average drop, but, for the most part, the city doesn’t care. Last year area paddlers thought they’d finally complained long enough when the city revamped one of the parks’ play spots. But the city wasn’t trying to please boaters, it was trying to please the tourists who stroll Washington Street—Golden’s main drag. The drop, Golden decided, didn’t do the city any good if spectators didn’t stop and watch the kayakers, wander over to buy ice cream or coffee, and then linger a little longer on the bridge above the river.

Boaters saw the move as a nice gesture. But, says Hartman, the move was purely an economic benefit for the town. Boaters, he says, “got the residual benefit.”

Whitewater parks and golf courses

While Reno’s park has redeveloped a city, two East Coast whitewater parks have helped spur original development. One company, Wisp Resort, believed so strongly in the appeal of a whitewater park that it donated land to build the Adventure Sports Center in Maryland — just as it did for a nearby golf course.

“We truly believe that having many recreational amenities is good for both the consumer and for us as business people,” says Karen Myers, president of Wisp Resort. Golf courses, of course, have long helped to propel real estate prices. Anecdotally, it looks as if whitewater parks might do the same — in one period last year, Wisp Resort customers chose lots near the Adventure Sports Center as often they did near the golf course.

In Charlotte, Crossland Development Company changed the name of a new development near the United States National Whitewater Center to “Whitewater” — hoping that the change and their close proximity might help their brand.

They’ve already seen results. When lots in the 2,300-home project first went on the market, the median price of a home was about $150,000, says Lance Kinerk, director of sales and marketing at the USNWC. Now the median is $400,000.

Another impact with the man made courses is that they must be staffed. The USNWC plans to hire over 200 people.

And the park attracts some big corporate events, included about 2,500 from a Panera Bread conference, said Kinerk.

What it Takes to Build

In 1994 — 11 years before the hordes started to descend on the Truckee River for four days each May — a group Reno kayakers decided they might like to install a temporary slalom course in the river, says local boater and dogged park proponent Jim Litchfield.

But the idea languished, he says. Then in languished some more, even as boaters’ imaginations began to run wild with possibilities.

“It takes so much time to get out of the regulatory environment,” says Litchfield. Luckily, “I was just too stubborn to let it go,” he says.

In 1999 the Nevada Commission on Tourism threw their support behind the project and the scope increased significantly. The problem then became that the park was too good of an idea — at least for politicians used to fighting and dealing to get their way.

“One of the problems of the project was that everybody loved it,” says Litchfield. So the thinking in government offices went something like, “Everybody loves the park, someone else will take care of it.”

The lesson: Keep fighting.

“Whitewater parks are just what our sport needs,” says Litchfield. “Paddlesports in general is a fringe sport. I’m hoping that these whitewater parks sort of change that.”

More paddlers, after all, means more participants, more exposure, and, ultimately, more profit.